New Hampshire Vaca

Standing in line for my New Hampshire driver’s license, I spotted a poster on the wall at DMV that touted “New Hampshire is 84% forested and the rest is underwater.”  Hmmmm… really? I verified the fact with an online forestry site that it is indeed 84% forested and the underwater part is obvious when looking at a Google Map of the state. Rivers, lakes, ponds, bays dot the landscape and the ocean provides a superabundance of water.

So I decided then and there to search the perfect getaway for my children, spouses, grandchildren in this land of trees and water. The words I searched  for online were peaceful setting, pristine water, native plants, hiking trails, private, rustic cabins, firepit… all within driving distance to Portsmouth for a night out or day at the ocean. And I found the perfect cabins nestled in the woods on Wild Goose Pond near Pittsfield NH.

Rustic it was. And isolated. A pristine lake. Nice and quiet. Peaceful. With a variety of boats… paddles or sails provided. At night we snuggled under down comforters and during the day we paddled, sailed, hiked, ran, swam then gathered for a plein-air dinner cooked over an open fire.

Nature in its purest surrounded us.

… spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Adventures that delighted children (and me!) included fairy houses using old bark, twigs, acorns, rocks, moss, leaves and other natural materials.

… puzzles

… lunch from bushes,

… running, walking,

… marshmallows,

… swimming, fishing,

… and finally, hiking Mt. Major with the ultimate in views!

I think I like it here in New Hampshire!

The Snake is Gone… I think.

Maggie knows it's in there!

Maggie knows it’s in there!

I heard it rattling through dry leaves before I glanced over and saw the Northern Water Snake slowly disappearing into the pachysandra garden on the edge of the property. (See Where Have All My Frogs Gone?) He had been warming himself on the fieldstone path as I passed by this garden. Could he really be leaving us? It’s been two weeks now and he has not returned to our little frog pond garden.  And, magically, two new frogs have found the pond.  My fish numbers are lower but they will recover. All is well in our small aquatic paradise.

With the snake gone, I knew this was my window of opportunity. Today I waded knee-deep into the garden that borders the pond, armed with loppers and pitchfork and a stick to drive away anything scary. Chop, chop, dig, dig. I slowly cut back the cotoneaster, dug up large sections of the spreading Black-eyed Susan and all of the variegated Japanese sedges, leaving the fieldstone visible.  I left alone the poor sun starved Blue Sedge (Carex flacca) that once gracefully flopped over the rocks along the border. It will rebound.
img_2198If the snake makes it through the winter, he will probably return to the pond next summer, however the shelter he found beneath the overhanging branches and flowers is gone.  Let’s hope he keeps on truckin’.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Snake in the Pond: Update!

If we’re keeping score, it’s the Northern Water Snake: 10, me: 0.

I would say we were evenly matched when we began battle over the pond habitat. (See “Where Have All My Frogs Gone? ) He had no fear of me and I had no fear of him. I only wanted to relocated him to a nearby snake Shangri-La but he knows very well that this little pond is nirvana, not for the fish and frogs, mind you, but for this chubby snake that grows wiser by the day.

I allowed the pond to evaporate about a foot.  This exposed the fieldstones arranged at water’s edge, his favorite hideaway. He could not slither in and out of the water without being discovered. I was sure I could hide the minnow net beneath the surface of the water and swoop him up when he picked his favorite escape into the depths of the pond.   Nix the minnow net. He seemed to ignore it when it arrived on scene but after several failed attempts to steer him into a watery trap, he quickly learned to turn tail and hide beneath the cotoneaster if I brought out the net.

At one point, I did not see him for several days. “Yes,” I thought. “I rolled up the welcome mat and he’s taken the hint.”  But no, he is still here and watching me now from the shadowy vegetation.  And I can only watch him from the window where I took the photo above with a telephoto lens.  He’s wise to me. If I crack a door slowly, he’s gone.

I still sit by the near empty pond to enjoy the fish and insects.  Occasionally, across the pond, the cotoneaster branches convulse as if a wild boar is careening beneath.  I know who it is and I think he’s probably caught a hapless creature in that charge.

My next move should be to trim overhanging branches, sedges, and begin to remove the fieldstone, then I should remove his food supply,  the few fish, but at this point I’m beginning to have nightmares that he may grab my foot and swallow me. Can a snake grow more intelligent?  I know he’s outsmarted me.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Where Have All My Frogs Gone…?

The answer, my friend, suns himself on the edge of the pond.  It’s no longer a fish and frog pond. It is a snake pond.  This is a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon).  He’s big, he’s not afraid of me and he’s eaten every single frog in the pond.

Click for a closeup look

Our army of frogs began to dwindle about 3 weeks ago. I suspected something sinister, maybe a raccoon or a great blue heron.  I continued to putter around the pond, wading knee deep into the crocosmia and cotoneaster to pull a errant honeysuckle vine or walnut tree sprout.  On my last venture into the ticket, I stepped close to the pond and something big shot from beneath my foot and disappeared quickly, branches moving along its route. “Ah-ha,” I thought. “We have one big bullfrog left.”

It was a couple of days later when the Northern Water Snake first showed himself, fat and content, slithering in and out of the water and dashing to hide beneath the cotoneaster. It was he in the thicket, not a bullfrog that I disturbed. All of my frogs he wore on his waistline. He has eaten every last one.

A quick count of my fish tells me they are his latest victims. This week the snake no longer attempts to hide himself. Each day I stand at the pond staring at him as he curls up on the warm rocks basking and regarding me, tongue flitting, sensing his envirornment. His look tells me that this is his pond now.  But he does not know me at all.  I am already planning my strategy.

This is not a snake I’d want to share the water with.  Often mistaken for a cottonmouth, the Northern Water Snake is not venomous but, like all water snakes, it can be cranky. It may charge and it does bite. It dines on amphibians and fish day and night, routinely eating fish as they sleep at night. Grrrrr!

The snake is beneficial to the environment but not to my pond. I will not harm him but my game plans involve a minnow trap and/or a butterfly net. I know a beautiful lagoon about 6 miles from here that awaits this fella’s arrival.  I hope I trap him soon or all I’ll have left is mosquito larvae living in the water!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Singing in the Rain…

The aftermath of a drenching rain that ends a long period of extreme heat and dry weather is dramatic. One day we can be surrounded by crunchy brown grass and wilted leaves and little movement by animals, then wake the morning following a storm to exuberant changes in nature.  Plants perk up and animals perk up.  It is a healthy reminder how much all life on earth depends on H2O for its very existance.

Our rains came heavy, fast and furious with much thunder and lightning and wind. Umbrellas flew like rockets, inflatable rafts became a part of  the borders, watering cans were blown across the landscape, but we were oblivious to all as we sat at a window and watched in absolute joy.

click to see my freckles...

A stroll through the revived property revealed how quickly living creatures bounce back when water returns. At the pond, fish that have lived at the bottom of the low pond became our little friends again and they introduced us to their babies.  Frogs that we have not seen in weeks made appearances again. Toads lingered in the wet mulch and filled their tummies with insects that are emerging from hiding. And the ground is alive with amphibian youngsters. Watch your step!

Click all photos to enlarge

We sat at the end of the pier in the calm of the early morning today and watched the osprey young who finally learned to fly.  We observed the parents diving for fish, hitting the water, then reappearing with large croaker in talons. Babies who waited in the pines shouted with excitement and hunger. From the end of the pier we enjoyed a pod of porpoise chasing schools of fish up one shoreline, then another, coming within feet from where we watched. Yes, they also brought their babes for us to meet.

Finally, a happy birthday to Les Parks over at Smithfield Nursery. He turned a young 50 yesterday and he wished for this rain for his big day, which he generously shared with us all. What a difference it made.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Pond Party

Wake up, boys, it's Spring! Click to enlarge a bullfrog just out of hibernation.

With weather in the upper 70’s on Sunday, it was time to clean the pond. The bullfrogs chose this day.  Their mass emergence from the pond on Sunday allowed me to disturb the bottom without injuring a hibernating frog. The bullfrogs appeared within minutes of one another as if there was an underwater alarm clock. As they dragged their inky bodies from the pond, they were practically unrecognizable as bullfrogs. Lethargic and muck-colored, they settled down on the sun-warmed rocks.

This was truly my window of opportunity. Soon these boys will begin their irresistible chorus of bullfrog bellows followed by a pond overloaded with nighttime frog orgies. Shortly thereafter I will be watching over my rather large tadpole nursery. On Sunday, my frog friends plopped themselves silently in the sun, eyes watching me as I dipped my crab net again and again.  I brought up sycamore leaves covered with muck and stirred up ginkgo leaves with their tiny air pockets that cause them to pop to the surface to be skimmed. All this good stuff from the bottom of the pond is worked in as a rich compost around lucky plants.

Click to see pond life complete with Jack, the cat

You could call me a lazy water gardener since I don’t remove the fish, I don’t drain the pond and I don’t remove all the muck in the bottom of the pond. I leave the gravel that has fallen from potted plants to provide a habitat for good bacteria that breaks down ammonia wastes.  I clean the bio-filter that provides a bubbly fountain that aerates the water.

Since the pond is not in full sun, string-algae is not a real problem.  Algae might appear before the ginkgo leafs out, but not to worry. It’s the tadpoles’ fav food and it soon disappears.  My methods are not for everyone but they have worked for me for many years.  The lilies, the iris, the grasses, the insects and the animals thrive.

Spot

This is our simplified little pond where the healthy fish and frogs eat the insects and plants, and an occasional great blue heron, snake or raccoon will eat the frogs and fish. It is our water garden full of life meant to be studied, appreciated and enjoyed.  Add two chairs and two glasses of wine and it’s a perfect setting at the end of the day.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Spring!

Today I was drawn to the pond by a symphony of music. I stood there for minutes searching for members of the orchestra but not one was visible. Yet I’m sure I was being watched by hundreds of tiny eyes, the eyes of spring peepers (Pseudarcris cruicer), the first species to begin calling each spring. Hidden well in the vegetation and silenced by my approach, the music began again after I took a quiet stance.

For weeks, all in Virginia have heard the shrill whistles from distant woods and ditches but the sound in our frog pond has reached a fever pitch. This all-male chorus of tiny frogs has an amazingly loud and high ‘peeping,’ all directed toward the fairer sex. The higher and faster a male can sound, the better his chances are of attracting a female of the species.

Peepers are good climbers but they prefer to be on the edge of ponds and marshy woodlands full of grasses, twigs, and shrubs.  From just above the water, trios of males form a chorus to compete for mating rights. These little frogs vary in size but on average they are just over an inch long and  are found in shades from brown, tan, olive, gray or a tinge of red. The belly is cream and the back is marked by the most distinguishing feature, a dark cross.

Most folks have a great affection for the spring peeper for they mark the awakening of spring and the renewal of life.  Winter is finally over.  Hallelujah!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Wet Week Ahead

click to enlarge photos

Glancing at the weather forecast, it looks absolutely dreary this week in Tidewater. More drizzly moisture has moved in today with the forecast of ‘chance of rain, patchy fog, drizzle, cloudy, chance of snow’ appearing several times over the next few days. We were energized over the weekend with warm enough temperatures that caused us drop everything we were doing inside and spend two days outdoors.  Mister gardener busied himself picking up sticks near the stable while I picked up sticks on the river.  Leaves were raked and birdhouses were cleaned, just in time as the bluebirds are actively picking their territories. I wondered why the wren had abandoned her nest last spring.  Cleaning the house gave me the answer. I thought HORNET but in checking, it is most likely a wasp nest. The cells are larger than the usual paper wasp nest we see under the eaves.

Mister gardener took stock of his vegetable garden, tuned up the tractor, sharpened the mower blades, and mowed the lirope bed. I took stock of my gardens, checking plants for winter damage, uprighting birdbaths, raking some leaves, and watching the eagles. The dogs bounded around the yard playing keep-away with sticks while I wandered from bed to bed getting reacquainted with all the garden flora. I was happy to see that my dwarf  pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) made it through the winter chill without a bit of die-back from cold. With its dark green glossy foliage, it is hardy in zones 8-10, but seems to be thriving in this seaside garden.  It grows in lovely mounds to 3 or 4 feet tall and serves as a perfect compliment to our well-used birdbath.

The pond will need a good spring cleaning.  The best way to clean out a pond, I find, is to use a crab net.  The leaves stay in the net and the fish find their way through the holes. Cleaning will be done in the weeks to come as the frogs are still slumbering at the bottom of the pond.

There is not much color in these gardens of ours yet.  Hellebores are in bloom.  Crocus is just beginning to peek through the ground. The amazing pansies, despite the weight of all that snow, are perky and colorful.  Finally, the parsley, planted in almost every bed, survived and is green with life and awaiting the black swallowtail butterfly.  Spring can’t be far away.

P.S.  The culprits in the wren house were identified as Common Aerial Yellowjackets which surprised me. I am accustomed to underground yellowjacket but two dead ones tumbled out of the house as I emptied it. There were 4 levels of papery cones in this small wren house.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’

crocosmiaI just removed dozens and dozens of late summer crocosmia plants as I do each year.  I’m not sure where I found my original Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ but I remember being charmed by the 20 or so blooms per stem and the attraction by hummingbirds. With its tall iris-like spikes and mid to late season blooms, I decided it would be perfect around the pond attracting butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.  Little did I realize that three years later, clumps of these showy orange-red blooms would be as thick as thieves crowding out ornamental grasses and other desirable plantings.

Lovely they are and a delight to hummingbirds but they caused my pond garden to look untidy and they had to be moved.  So after they bloomed one fall, I pulled them up, oh so easily, and replanted them in a less managed border where they could multiply with abandon.

Little did I know that fateful fall that the corms beneath the ground looked like this:

 

crocosmia corm

Wikipedia

And I was pulling up this:

crocosmia corm
That means deep beneath the ground I left a vertical chain of corms that are impossible to remove unless I wade in with a backhoe.  Even then, I still wouldn’t get them all.  As you can see, new corms are continually produced on short underground stolons rapidly forming new clumps. Each corm stores food for a new plant so it is endless.  I would label them invasive in this garden, yet in a large border, they would be glorious.  There are over 400 cultivars of crocosmia worldwide in shades of yellows, reds, and oranges.  In some places, certain varieties have been labeled invasive: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and warmer climates.

Why do I bother to pull up these persistent plants? I pull them up every year for a mastercrocosmia gardener fundraiser.  They are divided into bunches of 5 or 6 corms and they completely sell out every year at the annual plant sale.  Folks are delighted to start their own beds of crocosmia.  I sometimes wonder if I should label the bag with a warning: Named Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ because they are the ‘devil’ to remove from a garden.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Rough End to the Weekend

No relief!Last night, I sat huddled on the couch until midnight with two labs and two cats and no power in the house.  Severe thunderstorms pounded Gloucester County overnight with damaging winds and numerous lightning strikes.  Our only light came from very close and frequent lightning and the only sounds we heard were from loud claps of thunder and window-rattling wind gusts or an occasional whimper from me.

The cause of the storms was hot and muggy weather stalled over the entire Atlantic Seaboard.  Cooler air from the north could not penetrate this system due to a Bermuda High firmly situated over the Atlantic Ocean.  With the High strongly in place, we will not have any relief from the muggy weather for the next several days. The storms that passed through last night could roar through each afternoon through Wednesday. Yikes!

Our water gauge registered 3 1/2″ of rain overnight. The pond is overflowing but okay.  So far mister gardener has discovered one tall Tulip Poplar that was struck by lightning but I think there could be damage on more of our trees.  I can hear chain saws on distant properties so we are not alone.  I do wonder how wide this storm front was that passed through Virginia.

As the dogs and cats and I huddled together during the storm last night, where was mister gardener you might ask?  He was asleep.  He heard nothing.  He saw nothing.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

How to Rid a Fish Pond of a Snake in One Easy Step

Yesterday I leaned over the pond to adjust the water fountain as I always do, lost my footing and in a flash I hit the water creating a pond-sized tsunami that blanketed the flower bed.  As I fought to regain my footing in the midst of lily pads, I spotted our resident water snake bolt like a rocket from the pond and quickly escape to safety across the yard.  This was a moronic way to solve the snake problem but, hey, I think I scared it enough that it won’t be back.

This harmless 16” snake took up residence about a month ago.  Very timid, it always would disappear into rocks when I approached and my glimpses were fleeting.  But I saw enough to identify it as an Eastern Garter snake, a common snake in the area that can adapt to a variety of habitats including fish ponds.  They mainly eat earthworms but will feed on amphibians and fish.  I tried a variety of ways to catch it including nets, flushing it from the rocks with a hose, but it outfoxed me every time… until now.

Wipe that smile off!

I was relieved that mister gardener did not witness my humiliating misadventure but as I climbed from the pond, I noticed Big Bullfrog just watching me.  Is that a grin on his face?

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester